Skip to main content

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump
(1994)

(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

How many movies are you ever likely to see where Tom Hanks plays a Klansman? I’d warrant this is and always will be the only one, and it occurs in the first five minutes. It was at that point, on first viewing, that I was wide open to whatever wickedly satirical barbs Zemeckis – at that stage of his career still having a robust track record, making a monster hit from an incest-infused time-travel movie, a clever sequel that gave audiences a hard time, an anarchic loony tunes live-action/animation hybrid and a star-laden effects comedy taking pot-shots at the excesses of beauty culture – had in store.

Alas, Zemeckis didn’t quite live up to those opening moments, and indeed, the Zelig-like everyman conceit of Forrest appearing at notable moments from history and influencing pop culture figures and events is haphazard at best; this tech-first approach later saw the director crowbar Bill Clinton into Contact for no good reason other than he could, and eventually pushed him into the motion-capture business for an extremely patchy decade, from which he has never recovered, quality-wise.

Indeed, linking Forrest by lineage to a confederate general seems audacious – Gump is named after relative General Nathan Bedford Forrest, proponent of racism and slavery, and by implication, it’s in his genes. But then we have Forrest explain Momma Gump’s reasons for naming him thus: “Sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense”. It’s a curiously spineless backtracking on the barb, rather offensive in how faint it is (“not making any sense” is a very mild way to describe lynching), and one wonders if there was a version of the screenplay where Momma was a proud southern racist with no subtext to naming her son that he wouldn’t have a chance of understanding.

That may seem unlikely, but Gump frequently falls victim to lurches in tonality, which would be much less at odds if screenwriter Eric Roth maintained a clear distinguishing line in the irony of the things Forrest says/does and what it’s supposed to mean in the movie. Roth adapted Winston Groom’s 1986 novel, which most appraisers report displays a more uncompromisingly cynical streak; Zemeckis and Roth foregrounded the love story (if you want to call it that; one might suggest it’s a deeply cynical reading of love itself, of unrequited longing and ultimate capitulation to practicalities, but too late) and changed Forrest from an idiot savant to a plain idiot.

There was a tête-à-tête organised between Zemeckis and Tarantino, post Oscar glory, where Zemeckis was disappointingly – or expectedly? – unnuanced in his insights into the movie while admitting to “black comedy and tragedy and irony” (and asserting “it’s not a melodramatic, saccharine story”). Tarantino was evidently most keyed into what he saw as Gump’s transgressive side (“But the comedy element running through there – subversive is the wrong word – but there is a big edge to it. A movie about that guy as the No. 1 guy of America of the last 20 years has got a bite”), but if you look at Zemeckis’ post-Gump movies, you’d think the guy with that streak had been lobotomised.

Zemeckis suggested that “Gump is a completely decent character, always true to his word. He has no agenda and no opinion about anything except Jenny, his mother and God”. Except that, arguably, this absence renders him indecent. He has no capacity for self-interrogation or self-reflection. He has a “virtuous” capacity for violence, turning on a knife edge when Jenny is threatened and revealed as the perfect killing machine under battle conditions – we don’t see him kill anyone, but if he’s such a great soldier, there can be no doubt he does – just as he is the perfect sportsman; all the things that make America great are exemplified by an imbecile who will do as he is told without pause to consider whether it’s the right thing or not (“He’s a goddam genius” so says his drill sergeant).

It’s entirely difficult to conceive that anyone could view the movie as a straightforward conservative text with such boulders strewn in their path. Likewise, Forrest makes his fortune not through business acumen or hard graft, but by an act of God and obliviousness to his colleague’s investments (in Apple). There’s nothing cute about Forrest’s obliviousness to Jenny’s sexual abuse, yet Zemeckis and Roth play it for sick laughs through Forrest’s undiscerning gaze (“He was a very loving man. He was always kissing and touching her and her sisters”); it’s a twisted piece of writing, coming from the same dark impulse as Forrest’s ignorance of the implications of the Klan. Forrest is too stupid to be racist (yeah, I know), but also too stupid to recognise child abuse.

Forrest Gump: He was from a great military tradition. Someone from his family had fought and died in every single American war.

Gump’s Vietnam sequence is probably where the film flows best – and since the romance never really works, as it can’t, it’s probably not coincidental that there’s little of Jenny here – with Forrest introduced to Mykelti Williamson’s Bubba (“my best good friend” who is, comparatively, much smarter than Forrest) and Sergeant Dang (Gary Sinise), the latter hilariously characterised as coming from a family of soldiers who died in battle (“I guess you could say he had a lot to live up to”); Dang is Bob Hoskins to Forrest’s Roger Rabbit, effectively an actor playing it straight to a cartoon, and generally the movie gets its strongest fuel from those reacting strongly to Gump’s relentless impassivity.

Sinise is great, but it’s a mystery why double amputee Dang comes round to seeing the value in his life, other than that the screenplay requires Forrest to have an unearthly impact on all he meets (is it a coincidence that Forrest is described as a gardener, as was Peter Sellers’ Chance in Being There?) Zemeckis and Roth want him to be simultaneously an ineffectual idiot and an aspirational figure, so that’s what he becomes, fuelled by Alan Silvestri’s insipidly uplifting score (and accompanying feather).

Forrest GumpSorry I had a fight in your black panther party.

Forrest is oblivious to the perils of Nam so escapes unscathed (“We would take these real long walks”). Nam itself is an extended pop promo, accompanied by Hendrix and Buffalo Springfield in scenes that surely gave Oliver Stone an embolism; the contrasting peace movement is dealt short shrift, but charitably, I don’t think this is the movie being overtly conservative, any more than I think Jenny dying of a mysterious disease bearing all the hallmarks of AIDS is her punishment for leading a profligate lifestyle; we’ve established that you only excel in the military if you’re an imbecile, and that those who care about the welfare of their men don’t escape unscathed (Dang who, notably and inclusively, doesn’t hate Asians, as he ends up married to one, unless she was mail order; the cynical side of the movie absolutely would go there). There’s no reason to think that any movement, even an equal and opposite one isn’t similarly flawed and manipulative. Indeed, it’s central to the movie that, Forrest being an island of integrity, anything that impinges on him as a force has to be. 

JennyI bet that never happened in Home Ec.

This applies as much to Jenny, who has led a sad and conflicted life, one where she has sexually abused Forrest himself (“I want to apologise for anything I ever did to you because I was messed up for a long time”); it’s a slightly facile argument, but consider a gender-reversed Forrest Gump with the same sequences between Forrest and Jenny. Not that Jenny’s death isn’t cynical. She has to go to lend weight to Forrest’s abiding virtuousness; she dies to cast light on the beauty of being vacant, empty Forrest. Who comments “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is”. Are we supposed to think Forrest does? Perhaps in the same way as a devoted hound.

It’s probably evident that I wasn’t swayed by Forrest Gump’s motions towards the emotionally affecting. But I was nevertheless fascinated by many of its choices, given how much it has been embraced as a great, life-affirming pinnacle of populist entertainment. One where the main character’s mother is required to prostitute herself to ensure his education as well as the other various other antithetical impulses outlined above. 

Then there are the flashy Zelig sequences, celebrated at the time but which, for the most part, prove rather strained or fall flat. An idiot is responsible for great advances in pop culture (Elvis’ moves), bringing Nixon down by accident (the Watergate break in), shares a talk show stage with John Lennon (painfully extraneous). And then there’s the borderline non sequitur bit with Johnson asking to see Forrest’s buttocks; it’s like a surrealist Borat. Shit happens. Some of the movie entirely fails to elicit the intended response (the unintended comedy of “Run, Forrest, run”) but is also a reminder of Zemeckis’ fondness for repetition to underline the point or theme (Forrest later similarly chased as a teenager: see the playfulness of time zones and perspectives in Back to the Future Parts I and II and III).

Hanks might actually be the key to Forrest Gump stumbling as a satire. Once he’s on board, his affable sincerity instructs the tone (it’s difficult to imagine the same result with potential Forrests Chevy Chase or Bill Murray, although, having seen Phenomenon and I am Sam, it’s possible something even more excruciating would have resulted from John Travolta or Sean Penn). At some point, Roth and Zemeckis decided they wanted the audience to feel for an empty vessel, and so there’s the poetry of the passing of time and seasons to the indifference of the protagonist. He’s a god in his own way, unassailable and unreachable. The problem is, it makes the picture as a whole inconsistent and dissatisfying. The insightful and acerbic material can’t escape from the opposite tug towards the sentimental. An Entertainment Weekly piece in 2004 asserted “One half of folks see it as an artificial piece of pop melodrama, while everyone else raves that it's sweet as a box of chocolates”. But it’s actually both, and neither and more besides. And less too.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Everyone wants a happy ending and everyone wants closure but that's not the way life works out.

It Chapter Two (2019)
(SPOILERS) An exercise in stultifying repetitiveness, It Chapter Two does its very best to undo all the goodwill engendered by the previous instalment. It may simply be that adopting a linear approach to the novel’s interweaving timelines has scuppered the sequel’s chances of doing anything the first film hasn’t. Oh, except getting rid of Pennywise for good, which you’d be hard-pressed to discern as substantially different to the CGI-infused confrontation in the first part, Native American ritual aside.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
(SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump. And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

That woman, deserves her revenge and… we deserve to die. But then again, so does she.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2  (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’m not sure I can really conclude whether one Kill Bill is better than the other, since I’m essentially with Quentin in his assertion that they’re one film, just cut into two for the purposes of a selling point. I do think Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has the movie’s one actually interesting character, though, and I’m not talking David Carradine’s title role.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Check it out. I wonder if BJ brought the Bear with him.

Death Proof (2007)
(SPOILERS) In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or less extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
(SPOILERS) It sometimes seems as if Quentin Tarantino – in terms of his actual movies, rather than nearly getting Uma killed in an auto stunt – is the last bastion of can-do-no-wrong on the Internet. Or at very least has the preponderance of its vocal weight behind him. Back when his first two movies proper were coming out, so before online was really a thing, I’d likely have agreed, but by about the time the Kill Bills arrived, I’d have admitted I was having serious pause about him being all he was cracked up to be. Because the Kill Bills aren’t very good, and they’ve rather characterised his hermetically sealed wallowing in obscure media trash and genre cul-de-sacs approach to his art ever since. Sometimes to entertaining effect, sometimes less so, but always ever more entrenching his furrow; as Neil Norman note in his Evening Standard review, “Tarantino has attempted (and largely succeeded) in making a movie whose only reality is that of celluloid”. Extend t…